There are a lot of things at the Artists’ Union Gallery’s Taboo Topics exhibit to make the more squeamish among us gasp — an abstract sculpture that is simultaneously phallic and vaginal; a wall-sized painting titled “Golden Shower” (use your imagination); a crimson-tinted photo of a church overlaid with the statement, “There is not enough red in the world to paint the history of religion” — but for at least one man, the most controversial image he could create is a picture of George W. Bush, mouth curled into that famous confused simian smirk of his, with the phrase “ceci n’est pas un president” (“this is not a president”) scrawled at the bottom. Criticizing a Commander-in-Chief with lower approval ratings than hepatitis might not seem very bold. But according to Jeanne LaRocco, one of the show’s three curators, for the artist, creating the piece was an act of bravery.
“He couldn’t show it to his father. He just said his father wouldn’t be able to have that conversation. He would get angry,” she says. The piece, titled “The Treachery of Images,” illustrates one of the overarching messages of the exhibit: that these days, the definition of “taboo” is in the eye of the beholder. “A juror made the point that a taboo used to be something everyone in the culture knew. Now, we are such a culture of individuality, each one of us can define what’s taboo for ourselves. Even people living in the same home have different ideas of what’s taboo.”
Coordinator Elle Je Freeheart came up with the concept. “I was talking with friends and at one point someone said, ‘That’s a taboo topic, she says. “It stuck in my head a little bit, and I realized how many things are taboo, how you can pick almost any subject and there’s a taboo somewhere.” She enlisted LaRocco and fellow artist Sonya Burke to help curate the show, and opened it up for local artists to explore society’s peccadilloes, free from judgment. “I wanted to have a show where artists use their creativity to make their voices heard in whatever strong way they wanted to. I wanted them to have complete freedom to do whatever expression they wanted to about whatever taboo subject they wanted.”
Freeheart also wanted to involve the community at large: She left boxes and index cards at various locations around town, inviting the public to share their own taboo statements under the cloak of anonymity. While some of the submissions are on display at the gallery, Freeheart was disappointed in the small number of entries. And despite the complete lack of restrictions, she felt a lot of the submitted artwork did not go sufficiently wild.
“We get in such a habit of censoring ourselves that when given the opportunity to let loose, we keep the reins,” she says. “That’s kind of what the show ended up being. It’s not quite as powerful as what I was hoping. Not that the work isn’t good, but I think people held back.”
Maybe. But as with “The Treachery of Images,” what is safe for some might be considered treasonous to others. And as it turns out, in a county that voted Republican in the last two presidential elections, more than one artist found dissing the current administration a worthy taboo. Dubya himself makes a few appearances: He shows up in “Holding Jesus Hostage,” his face pasted across a toy cowboy and pointing a gun at an apparently submissive Christ figurine, and stars alongside his buddy Dick in “My Muses,” a four-panel collage by Lori Blanchard/Linhard — and no, it is not praiseful.
Other artists, however, chose to forgo the usual hot topics of sex, politics and religion in favor of the more personal.
In one of the most striking pieces, simply called “Taboo,” Stacy L. Christopher attaches several admissions, from the seemingly banal — that she enjoys public nudity, that she dreamed of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death the night before his fatal plane crash, that she held hands with Ben Affleck days before he entered rehab — to the startlingly frank — that she has been “raped, molested and beaten” and that she is “an actress of life’s stage” — to a wooden board and also allows the pages to lie scattered at the observer’s feet.
It is, perhaps, the truest representation of the theme: the things people would rather not say out loud, but feel comfortable expressing in a different medium.
“My take on the show itself,” LaRocco says, “was how many times I’ve brought up politics or religion in a conversation with people who I thought were my peers, who maybe grew up in the ’60s and had the same consciousness at some point, and how people would say, ‘We can’t talk about that.’ They may have a different opinion, but they’re not willing to discuss it — that is the essence of Taboo Topics.”
Taboo Topics runs through July 20 at Artists’ Union Gallery (330 S. California Street Plaza, Ventura, 643-3012). The gallery is open 12-6 p.m. Thu. and Sun. and 12-9 p.m. Fri. and Sat. For more information, visit www.venturaartistsunion.com.